The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1936

1936 is a year I feel was the first real Academy decision. You know? Typically, when I say “Academy decision,” I mean one of those films that — of course it won Best Picture. From Here to Eternity, The Sound of Music, Forrest Gump, Titanic — films that you know were gonna win Best Picture no matter their quality. The English Patient. That’s an Academy decision. It’s big, expensive, and it has all the things the Academy likes in their films.

The Great Ziegfeld, to me, is the first obvious Best Picture winner. Strange though, that its director didn’t also win Best Director. That went to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (talked about here). That decision makes no sense to me at all. Best Actress was Luise Rainer for Ziegfeld (talked about here), which I think was a bad decision, but one I can sort of understand based on the category. It’s worse, though, that she won the year after this as well. It highlights all the reasons she shouldn’t have won here. Best Supporting Actor (the first in the category’s history) was Walter Brennan for Come and Get It. If anyone should have won the first Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it was Walter Brennan. And Best Supporting Actress was Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse (talked about here). I do not understand this decision at all, and I feel Alice Brady was a much better decision in almost every way.

Which brings us to this category. Paul Muni was gonna win an Oscar at some point. It was only a matter of time. Here’s a dude who just bled Oscar. Everything he did, it seemed, was worth a nomination. He’s the only guy to have his very first performance (The Valiant) and his last performance (The Last Angry Man) be nominated for Oscars. Thing is, though — I don’t think he should have won here. He deserved it, but I don’t think this should have been his year.


And the nominees were…

Gary Cooper, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Walter Huston, Dodsworth

Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur

William Powell, My Man Godfrey

Spencer Tracy, San Francisco

Cooper — It’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. You need to have seen it.

Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds. It’s a great performance. It’s one that, if I’m in 1936, I strongly consider voting for. However, today, knowing he’d win twice after this, I can’t vote for him. But the performance is iconic. It’s almost one of those, “If only he gave it the year after this…”

Huston — Dodsworth is… let me put it this way:

If anyone were to decide to go on this Oscar Quest, I’d say there’s a 85-90% chance that you hadn’t seen this movie before you did. And I’d also say there’s an 85-90% chance that you’ll watch this movie and go, “Whoa. Whoa, where has this movie been?” Because it’s so damn good, and is so forgotten nowadays. You don’t hear this movie mentioned at all when they mention the great films of the 30s. And here it is — William Wyler, Walter Huston — this is a masterpiece. And so few people know about it.

The film is about an automobile tycoon who decides to retire early and take it easy. He books a big boat trip around Europe with his wife. And what happens is, while they’re on the boat (this is the first real quality time they’ve spent in years, since they got married young, and he threw himself into his work for years and years, getting to where he is), he finds out that they no longer have anything in common. He wants to go to the sites and see all the beautiful monuments and towns, while all she wants to do is hobnob with all the rich, high society people. And soon, they split up, since she’s picked up a count and wants to continue partying it up. And he instead goes off and goes to see the sites. And along the way, he meets an American divorcee and they hit it off. And then he goes home after the trip is over, and starts lying to his kids about what happened with his wife, until eventually the wife comes back (since the count eventually didn’t get a divorce and stayed with his wife despite promising to do so and marry her) and wants to reconcile. And the end is him deciding that his marriage is over and going off to meet with the divorcee.

It’s a terrific film. I’m telling you. It’s so fucking good. Walter Huston’s performance here should have won the Oscar this year. It really should have. It’s that good. Now, I probably won’t be voting for him, but that’s because I have history on my side and I know that he eventually got an Oscar. But based on performance alone — this man gives the best. Every time he was nominated, he gave the best performance.

Muni — The Story of Louis Pasteur is exactly that. If you’ve seen any of the 30s biopics, especially The Life of Emile Zola, you know exactly what you’re getting here. Paul Muni doing what he does. And he’s a great actor, so you get a solid film and a great performance. This documents Pasteur’s attempts to find a cure for anthrax, even though his methods are dismissed and even considered illegal. It’s a terrific recipe for a great movie.

Muni is great here, and I can see why he won, especially having been nominated a few times in the past and either being passed over (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) or not being nominated and still almost winning (the year before this, he was a write-in candidate for Black Fury, and finished second in the final voting based on that alone. Personally, I don’t think he should have won for that film, but, much like Bette Davis in 1934, if your write-in campaign is that strong, there’s almost no way they’re not gonna give you that Oscar the year after). So it was almost a foregone conclusion that he was winning here. And it was deserved. He was a great actor who gave many great performances and should have gotten a statue at some point. My thing is, since the category is so strong (and again, having history on my side), it would have been so much easier had he won the year after this, since it would have added legitimacy to The Life of Emile Zola winning Best Picture, much like when Mrs. Miniver won, and they gave it two acting awards as well. That at least makes it seem like, “Well, I don’t like the decision, but at least they went all out on it.” It makes it feel like a consolation that, “At least they really liked it,” as opposed to it seeming like a compromise.

Still, though, Muni is great. I’m not voting for him, though.

Powell — Let’s ignore the fact (for now) that William Powell, aside from starring in My Man Godfrey, also carried the Best Picture winner for this year, The Great Ziegfeld (a three-hour movie), and reprised his most famous role as Nick Charles in After the Thin Man this year. Just gonna let it be out there. Something to keep in mind when considering this performance.

My Man Godfrey is one of the best comedies ever made. It still holds up today. It begins with a crazy, rich family (crazy rich, and crazy, rich) going on a scavenger hunt. And one of their goals is to find a “forgotten man,” which, for those of you not familiar with the Depression, is one of those men who was ruined by the stock market collapse, and now lives homeless and “forgotten” by the country. And they happen upon Godfrey, who they find in the city dump. And at first, Cordelia, the uppity sister, tries to get him to come, but she does it in the wrong way and he scares her away. But then Carole Lombard, the spoiled, but ultimately good-hearted sister, comes, and he agrees to go with her and help her win just to spite the other sister.

And as they get there, Lombard takes a liking to Godfrey. She’s spoiled and impulsive, and decides he’s going to become her new “project.” She hires him to be the family’s new butler. And he becomes the butler, and hans around this crazy family, and, in different ways, helps keep them grounded. And while he’s there, he secretly borrows some of the family’s money and ends up turning it around for a huge profit, which he then reveals at the end when they’re about to fire him for stealing. And he ends up getting enough money to start a nightclub at the city dump for all the forgotten men and homeless of the city (which ends up becoming the biggest hot spot in town). And then, he also falls in love with Lombard, but begrudgingly. It’s quite nice how they do it. She’s pretty much in love with him from the start, but he treats her like a spoiled child. And the final scene of the film is so great — she comes into his office at the club with a priest, and says they’re going to get married. And the priest is like, “Who is the groom?” and she’s like, “Godfrey. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to marry me.” It’s amazing.

This is a perfect film.

Personally, I think William Powell is an actor that deserved an Oscar. And the 30s was the perfect time for him to win one. And I also think that if he were up for The Great Ziegfeld instead, he’d have stood a better chance at winning here. If only he won here and Muni won in ’37, then Tracy could have won in ’38 and everything could have been perfect.

Tracy — Thus begins the many Spencer Tracy nominations that will happen for the next thirty years. I don’t much agree with the early ones, and by the time the late ones came around, he already had two and I couldn’t vote for him.

San Francisco is a film that — if you stick with it, you’re greatly rewarded. The first 2/3 of this film is generic, and is only made interesting by its two leads: Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Gable plays a gangster and Tracy plays a childhood friend of his who became a priest. Standard fare for these movies, it always happens. And Gable is a music hall owner. And he finds this girl, this classically trained opera singer, and he basically gets her to play in his club by seducing her. And he falls in love with her, and uses her to make his club the most prestigious in the city. But then, she gets an offer to be an opera singer. And he, not wanting to lose her, maries her, which keeps her from the opera. But then eventually she goes anyway, but returns at his moment of need, when there’s a big competition for best nightclub, and she shows up to do her act one last time and helps him win.

It’s actually the kind of story where, at first you’re like, “Uh huh…uh huh,” because you’ve seen it all before. But then as the film goes on, you sort of get into it. They actually do a good job with it. Because then you figure, when she comes and sings the song for him, they’ll get back together and everything will be okay. But instead, after she does it and helps him win, he’s disgusted, and walks out of the room. Because, that’s when the film turns into its real story — that of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Out of nowhere, the earthquake hits. And the final third of this film is the city being destroyed by earthquake. And, I say this with no hyperbole — it’s the best special effects I’ve seen in a film from this era. The earthquake effects are terrific. I’m talking really, really good. I expect those kinds of effects to not be as good as they would have been later on, but as I was watching this, I went, “Wow, this is really fucking good.” We live in an age of digital effects. So you go into this not expecting it to be good. But when you see this, I bet it’ll make you go, “Wow, that’s actually really good for 1936.”

Oh, and Spencer Tracy. His role in the film is to basically be there and show up every now and again and talk to Gable. You’d think their main point of contention was that he was a gangster and was gonna get his comeuppance, kind of like James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces. But no, it’s not like that. Tracy basically makes peace with Gable as a gangster, because he knows that Gable is a good gangster. He does good things. Like, he buys a fancy organ for the church. He does good things, whereas another guy in his position might not. But Gable is also a staunch atheist. This is the thread of the film that I’m not totally on board with, but you know what, it’s 1936, and you have to accept this sort of thing.

Basically, Tracy is there, giving him advice and trying to get Gable to believe in God, and also trying to hel his marriage, because he sees that Gable doesn’t realize what is wife’s desires are, and tries to keep him grounded and in tune with what will keep him and his wife happy. And, after the earthquake, the wife goes missing, and when she’s discovered to be alive, Gable eventually drops to his knees and thanks God. And that’s the big point of the film — Gable turning to God. But we ignore that, since the special effects are so good.

Tracy really doesn’t do all that much in the film — Gable is the real star. That’s been my problem with Tracy’s Oscar nominations — he’s not always the lead role in any of them. Especially these three, the ’36, ’37 an ’38 ones. He’s clearly a supporting character. And it seems the reason he got nominated is because he was looked at as the “everyman,” kind of the way we see Tom Hanks now. (Which is why it’s a great coincidence that he and Hanks are the only two actors to win back to back Best Actor Oscars, and that they did so at the exact same ages.) I really didn’t see anything he did that was worth voting for here, and he’s clearly a #5, especially considering this is one of the strongest Best Actor categories of all time.

My Thoughts: Okay, here’s how we do this. First, Tracy is off. Two Oscars after this aside, he just wasn’t very good (Oscar-wise). Clearly a #5 here. Cooper is off next. I love Gary Cooper, I love Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but he won twice after this, and honestly, the other three (or two. I can accept him going higher than Muni) outdid him for the year.

Now — I take Muni off third. I’ll explain this when I get to the next two. But for simplicity’s sake, it would have made much more sense to have one of the next two nominees win and then have Muni win the year after this for The Life of Emile Zola. That category wasn’t very good, he would have been way overdue, and him winning would have legitimized the Best Picture win, in a way. Or at least made it all-in, which would have made the choice seem slightly more acceptable. Like, “at least they showed they really liked it.”

First, William Powell. William Powell had a hell of a year in 1936. He made five films. First, was The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, a screwball comedy with Jean Arthur. Second, was Libeled Lady, with Myrna Loy (sigh). A Best Picture nominee. It’s these next three that really matter. Third, was The Great Ziegfeld, the Best Picture winner. He was Ziegfeld, and he was great in the film. Maybe if he were nominated for that, he’d have won. (Maybe.) Fourth, the film he was nominated for, My Man Godfrey. He’s terrific here, and that performance alone puts him in the top three. And to top it off — he was in After the Thin Man, reprising his most famous role. A year like that, how does he not win Best Actor on principle? So that’s one reason why I don’t vote for Paul Muni. Second reason…

Walter Huston. This man gave, hands-down, the best performance in the category. It’s not even close. So it really comes down to weighing his performance against the year William Powell had. And, honestly, all things being equal, most of the time, I would take Huston. But knowing he won an Oscar eventually, I’m honestly just gonna take Powell here, since he never won. But make no mistake about it, Walter Huston gave the best performance in this category (he gave the best performance in every category he was nominated in), and the reason I’m taking Powell is because of the gift of writing this 75 years after it happened.

My Vote: Powell

Should Have Won: Powell, Huston

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. Muni did deserve an Oscar. But he really should have won the year after this. So in a way, unacceptable, but in other ways, very acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or My Man Godfrey, you’re dead to me.

You really should see The Great Ziegfeld as well. It’s a Best Picture winner, and it’s pretty great. That gives it a certain level of essentialness. See it. It’s great.

Dodsworth is, hands down, one of the best hidden gems from this entire Oscar Quest. Look at anyone talking about the films from this year, I bet you 9 times out of 10 (if not 10 out of 10), they’ll talk about how great this film is and how great Walter Huston is in it. I’m telling you — if you love movies, and you’re looking for a great film that relatively no one knows about, this is it. I’m telling you, this is a terrific, terrific film.

The Story of Louis Pasteur is a great film. Really well done, totally engaging. One of the stronger films from the Oscar Quest. Highly recommended.


5) Tracy

4) Cooper

3) Muni

2) Powell

1) Huston

One response

  1. I am adding DODSWORTH to my queue. Actually, it sounds similar to Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. I wonder if DODSWORTH partly inspired MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:40 pm

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